Photo: GetUp


Report of the Sorry Day Celebrations

at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Old Parliament House, Canberra
10-13 February 2008

Sorry Day in Canberra and what a great day it was to be at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. See also

Mobs had come in from all over: Brewarrina, Bourke, Elco Island, Alice Springs, Cairns and so on, many having decided to go to the Embassy only the day or so before realizing what a significant moment it was and wanting to be there to share it with friends and fellow activists.

There were maybe 300 kooris, murris and their supporters in residence by the time we got to Sorry Day and 2,000 or more passing through.

All about the Sacred Fire on the lawns in front of the Old Parliament groups were to be seen sitting about in small circles, some on the ground, some on chairs.

Many the soft heart and the soft smile and all about the sweet nectar of gentle conversation, the soft buzz of clan relatives meeting, greeting and exchanging news.

Michael Bayles of One Mob, Nimbin, was one of those who at the last minute had decided he had to be there. He arrived with a happy heart and greeted me there with a huge smile.

But the Nimbin/Rainbow Region presence was something bigger than Michael Bayles because another Michael, Michael Jack, had arrived the previous Saturday with Benny Zable and set up the Rainbow Chai Tent.

To fund the journey they had passed the hat around via email and raised $2000.

Just another tent, I suppose, but a rainbow coloured one and gloriously aflutter with Benny's beautiful hand painted flags.

For five days the Rainbow Chai Tent kitchen churned out free food for the multitudes. It was a huge undertaking and by the end Michael and Benny were staggering with exhaustion.

Many and willing were the assisting volunteers and the food just kept on coming and at all hours. Good food, too; prepared and served with love. All donated, money freely offered and strangers ringing in to ask: "What do you need? I can deliver."

Truly Michael and Benny were the cultural heros of service on that Sorry Day. Hear my praise, hear my gratitude.

There were two major lead up events to Sorry Day.

On evening of Monday 11 February GetUp organised a beautiful gesture,"Sorry, the first step" spelt out in lanterns on Parliament Hill.

On Tuesday 12. and the National Aboriginal Alliance organised a Converge on Canberra rally on Parliament Hill. See pre-publicity at the Socialist Alliance and Sydney Indymedia

My service was to dress the space about the Sacred Fire at the Tent Embassy and the above events with the Nimbin koori flags so that they became a linking visual theme through out those days.

Photos: Linda Cairnes

I also cut out, painted and erected behind the Sacred Fire 1.2 metre high letters that spelt out SOVEREIGNTY .

My initial inspiration had been to cut out two metre high letters spelling SORRY for erecting with Parliament House as the backdrop.

But Tent Embassy ambassador in residence, Auntie Isabelle Coe, told me, "We are beyond sorry here, Graeme. Sovereignty is what we are about."

So SOVEREIGNTY it became, twice the letters at half the size.

Many were the media cameras national and international and many an interview took place on those convivial Embassy lawns. That artful installation made vivid the message of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy with just one word.

Likewise the Nimbin Koori flags framed many a TV shot and many were the compliments the flags received.

Photos: Linda Cairnes

The more curious would approach me directly and ask what they meant and I would tell them this:

That the green on the red is a profile of the Nimbin Rocks which are in the country of the Wybul clan of the Bunjalung.

That the flags had been designed for a Bunjalung Corroborree which was produced in Nimbin in 2002 by Judy Appo and that first set of flags were sewn up by Shanti and funded by Johnny Bayles.

That in that country since the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival, I was proud say, hippy activists had worked with the Wybul to secure the land claim under the Nimbin Rocks and the Bunjalung had supported the hippies in their fight to end rain forest logging.

That in essence the flag signified the Koori-Green Alliance, native peoples and eco activists standing together for the Earth.

"Ahh," the inquirer would respond with smiling eyes. "That's good."


Each event has its sweet and peak moments that remain upper most in memory. Here are some of mine.

After the GetUp lanterns were lit we were asked to stand aside so that a people free shot of the artful spectacle could be be got from the cherry picker on site and the helicopter overhead.

The Elco Islander Dance group had joined us. The group had been brought to Canberra for the Multicultural Festival of the weekend before and had changed their travel arrangements so that they could stay on for Sorry Day.

Billets were readily found. Indeed through the GetUp network many, many people had offered to open up their homes to receive Sorry Day visitors. It was a time of huge goodwill. More billets offered than takers.

The Elco Island dancers are young, black and beautiful, full energy and good humour.

Last November they had become an international UTube hit by dancing to the music of Zorba's Dance by Mikis Theodorakis.

At the Tent Embassy I had seen them do this dance and delighted in the sheer fun of it. This was the humour of the movie Ten Canoes live. Same hair styles too.

While we waited for the helicopter shots and the evening light to fade and bring up the lantern light, the canberra evening and the Chookies, as they call themselves, just had to dance. If only to keep warm.

To my delight they took the Nimbin Koori flags and incorporated them in their dance. Holding the poles to their shoulders with one hand so they all leaned at the same angle, they advanced and retreated in their dance like a small but elegant army.

The flags are eye catching art but never had I seen them more beautifully deployed.

Here the UTube:


After I had collected the flags from the volunteer flag bearers who had carried them in the process that went from the Tent Embassy to Parliament Hill for the Convergence rally, I tied them to steel posts which i had arrayed for the purpose about the stage.

Out of the crowd came Senator Kerry Nettle to greet me.

"Here you are again with your beautiful flags, Graeme, "You do such good work."

And with that, a big warm hug.

That was pretty special. Not everyday one gets a hug from a Senator.


Other vocal admirers of the flags that day were Sydney friends, Trish and Arnaldo of Circus Solarus, who driven down from Sydney to participate in the event.

They introduced me to Linda Cairnes who had been an artist maker with Welfare State International, the source of my inspiration for flag making: engineers of the imagination was how they had described themselves.

I set up the Happy Wheels folding tables and chairs, made tea and we sat about and shared WSI stories, public place artists at ease in public place.

Linda supplied some of the photos to illustrate this report. Thank you, Linda.


Another significant meeting was with Jacob Rumbiak, paramount chief of West Papua, and his brother Anton.

They were in the company of Nick Chesterfield, an Australian activist who had helped them and 42 others independence workers escape the persecution of the Indonesian military in a harrowing journey to Australia by traditional longboat in 2006.

Jacob told me that he had come in solidarity with Australia's native people.

"We are one people," he said. "It was only 6,000 years ago that the land bridge between Papua and Arnhemland was washed away."

Jacob is now a refugee living in Melbourne working for the independence of his people. The Happy Wheels camp at the Tent Embassy became a HQ for the West Papuan government in exile for a while there.

A man of immense dignity and quiet strength Jacob had survived jail and torture and he had witnessed the death of many of his friends. His story is truly astounding and inspirational.

He wore small West Papuan flag pinned to his label. "Fifteen years jail for raising this flag in West Papua," he said.

I at once offered to make him a batch for rigging to bamboo poles.


On Sorry Day a big mob assembled at the Tent Embassy prior to the Sorry saying by Prime Minister Rudd.

Auntie Isabelle Coe called us together for a smoking ceremony at the Sacred Fire before we went up the Hill to witness the sorry saying on the big video screens that had been set up there.

She asked us to remember the ancestors and absent friends and walk together in silence.

It was an emotionally charged space. Many were the tears shed by the Stolen Generations, many the suffering spirits with us that day.

Walking in that mob, I wept. Tears of sadness, tears of joy.

The timing of our procession was perfect. We came upon the Hill as Rudd's speech began.

I found a couple of activist friends from Byron bay there, Denis and Janina O'Brien. Big hugs. Lots of hugs were happening all about.

Janina rang our mutual friend in Byron, Bodha Gwen Gould, to share our joy. Bodha answered from the Beach Hotel where she said a big crowd had gathered to watch the sorry saying on the big screens there.


Rudd's speech was well crafted, hit the right note and found mighty resonance with crowd on the Hill and with Australians generally.

At last the official denial about Australia's black history had been broken and a new era of reconciliation and justice seemed to have dawned.

But when Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson spoke and attempted to qualify the sorry-saying his words fell flat, the energy of the crowd dissipated and some people there turned their backs to his image on the screens.

Afterwards a story circulate that a black fellow had gone the Rainbow Chai tent and asked for a "Nelson".

"What's a Nelson?" Michael Chai had asked.

"A flat white."


On the evening of Sorry Day I lit a fire at the camp which was just behind the Rainbow Chai Tent and a group of friends joined me there.

They included Jon Sullivan MP, Member for Longman, the man who had unseated the former Minister for the Northern Territory Intervention and Land Grab, Mal Brough.

When asked how he had achieved his 10.6% voter swing against Brough he said it had taken a while to find the words but he had in a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte.

"Never interrupt and enemy when he is making a mistake."

While Brough was being controversial in the Northern Territory he thought his high media profile as a Minister would carry him through. But he neglected his electorate and didn't realize he was losing voters, left and right.

When Jon arrived at my camp, first thing i did was show him the new signage on Happy Wheels.

Jon read the sign, turned to me, shook my hand firmly and said: "Thanks mate."

It was a continuation of a conversation had at the Woodford Festival last December which had inspired the painting of the signage and the action proposed for the following Friday. See

Jon is a great raconteur and as site manager of the Woodford Festival for eight years he had had hosted nightly sessions at his site camp, the so-called Helipad. This night he regaled insider stories from the Parliament and the ALP.

Sorry Day had been one of those days in the Big House when politicians with big hearts showed them openly. Jon was carrying that happiness with him and a camp fire at the Tent Embassy was for him a perfect way to close the day.

Also at the fire and arriving late because of a car break down were a trio of women from Albury-Wodonga: Charisse, Rachel and Avril. They had recently come together as a singing group called Amancara ("Soul friend") and shared some songs so sweet.

A camp fire, a circle of friends, sweet music and hearts full from the quiet satisfaction of having witnessed a cultural shift along time coming: perfect moment.

Graeme Dunstan
18 February 2008

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